I write often of my family: Steve, the kids, the grands, and even the four legged ones. I don’t often write of the rest of my family, but today I’m going to write about my brother Al.
His name is actually Alexander, which is also my son’s name, and my father’s name. For simplification, I’ll just refer to my brother as Al.
A few weeks ago, we received a lovely invitation to a celebration of his 65th birthday. In true Al style, the invitation explained that this was a celebration of all of us, his family and friends, for giving him such a wonderful 65 years, so no gifts allowed! When the big day arrived (yesterday, as a matter of fact), we headed to the celebration, bringing only a card to honor his request.
Of course he didn’t want gifts. He never wants anything, at least not for himself. He is a giver…. of time, of energy, of prayer, of commitment, of anything he has to give. He was ordained into the priesthood 40 years ago, and has literally spent every day of his life focused on living up to the vows he took on that day. Many times, my Mother recounted the story of Al’s premature birth, of the doctor who signed the death certificate and directed the nurse to fill in the actual time after baby Al passed away so that he wouldn’t have to wait around at the hospital. Yet, he didn’t die. He was tiny and weak, but he survived. Then he thrived. My Mother insisted that God saved him so that he could enter the priesthood. When hearing my brother Mike reminisce last night about 7-year-old Al handing out Necco wafers and pretending they were Communion hosts, it’s not such a stretch to believe that God did just that.
It’s true, Al knew even before he was school age that he was to be a priest. He never questioned it. Never wavered. Never took a sabbatical to go “find himself”, never struggled with doubts about whether or not he was making the right choice. He just knew. Life jugglers like myself, who really just try to get from one month to the next, are truly envious of that sort of calling.
He spoke last night of all the blessings he’s had in his life, and how wonderful it’s been up to this point. He spoke of what every person in that room has meant to him, and his appreciation was both effusive and genuine.
I don’t know how he does it. Called to his vocation or not, I’d be a little ticked off at God if He had tapped me for that job. Al has gone where he was directed to go, and done whatever needed to be done. He’s grown congregations, taught school children, learned how to manage construction budgets, tended to the sick, counseled, inspired, advised, buried, married, and listened. Priests don’t really get days off. While he has eeked out a few vacations here and there, for the vast majority of his life, he’s on 24/7. My other brother said it best in his toast to Al last night: “No matter what, he has never wavered in his faith.”
Now, at 65, he is looking back on that with gratitude, seeing only the joy of the relationships he’s built, the lives he influenced, and the happiness he’s experienced. Retirement? Not in his vocabulary, at least not as long as he is physically, mentally, and emotionally capable.
The truly amazing thing is that I have another brother and two sisters who are just like him. The other brother came back from serving in Vietnam and joined the police force. 41 years after starting as a patrol cop, he retired (reluctantly, I might add) as a Lieutenant. Cops don’t have days off either, not really. Their shifts don’t end after 8 hours, and it’s not unusual for them to last more than 16 hours. Court schedules don’t care about days off or schedule rotation; I can’t count the number of times he worked through the night, then napped for an hour before heading back to court to testify in a case. He never complained. It was his job, and for 41 years he did it with dedication, integrity, commitment, and pride.
My two sisters are both mothers, and both of them have raised amazing daughters. One has been in nursing for more years than she’d want to admit, but forty wouldn’t be overstating it. She completed her Master’s Degree in her 40’s, still works full time in the ER, teaches the next generation of nurses 2 days a week, and of course finds time to babysit her grandchildren and tend her garden. Happily. The other sister surrendered her career track to support her husband’s business aspirations. She cheered his successes, and as the promotions lead to relocations, provided a stable home for all of them time after time. Always making sure the spotlight is pointed at someone or something else. She accommodates, coordinates, coaches, and volunteers. All the while smiling and being grateful for her life.
These four people are the most selfless humans I know. Today, though….today I will just focus on Al. The others will each get their turn, but I can only gush so much in one post.
Al and I haven’t had a close relationship. To start off with, there’s the age difference. Since he pursued his vocation early in life, he was away in the Seminary when I was still quite young. I think my teenage years were typical, and hanging out with my brother, the completely uncool priest, was not high on my list of priorities. Soon I was married and moved away, and gradually moved away from my Catholic roots. Getting a divorce didn’t help, but it didn’t really drive a wedge between us. Remarrying outside of the Church didn’t help either, but by that time I think he had accepted that I was on a different path. I don’t think he was happy about it, but he accepted it. We didn’t have much in common. Still, he is my brother, and we are far from strangers. Our visits with one another are determined by the number of holidays that I make it home for annually, plus the number of weddings, funerals, and other special get togethers that occur in the family. It’s inconsistent, but we are glad to see one another, and catch up and laugh.
The other reason we’ve not had a close relationship (and Al may not know this, but fortunately he’s never on the internet so he won’t read it here) is that I just couldn’t live up to what I interpreted his standards to be. I mean, the guy is in the business of spiritual guidance, and let’s just say that I’ve spent more than my share of time bungling those hard choices. While I can confidently say my last 20 years have been my best, I had some serious failings in the 20 years prior to that. I failed at marriage. I made horrendous errors in child rearing (thank you, God and The Village that made my kids turn out to be fabulous anyway). I failed at friendships. I failed at religion. I was so afraid of failing at being the person I knew I should be that I chose to not try. I kind of sucked.
During his “thank you” speech last night, Al jokingly mentioned that he couldn’t pass up the opportunity to celebrate his friends and family at this milestone. Since our parents passed at 51 and 62, we all subconsciously view anything past 60 as “borrowed time”. Creepy….morbid….and true. It was a poignant moment, and hearing my two brothers choke up when speaking about one another brought me to tears.
After a lovely dinner, Al distributed the table decor (potted cottage tea roses) to each of the ladies in attendance, and then gave each couple a thank you basket for attending. Yes, my brother gave people individual thank you gifts for attending a dinner in celebration of his birthday. As we were heading out, Al handed me a basket with our name on it. It had an “M” monogram, and was filled with a custom-made cutting board, personalized stationery, a carefully selected bottle of wine, a pound of whole hog sausage (does he know his sister, or what?!?), a box of gourmet chocolates, and an audio CD that he made with the Rosary prayers recorded.
Not a lot of commonality between the two paths Al and I took. Fortunately, I know now that there are many, many roads that lead to the same destination. I’m where I should be. I’m who I should be. My path has not been as straight forward as his, but now I realize it was the one I had to take. I wish Al and I had been able to travel our paths together more than we did, but I’ve no doubt benefited from watching his journey. Even from a distance, seeing his route certainly helped me navigate around some of those dead end side roads.
Happy birthday, Al. I’m grateful for you, too.